The War on Drugs fails—-and is doomed to perpetual failure—-because it is directed not against the root causes of drug addiction or of the international black market in drugs, but only against some drug producers, traffickers, and users. More fundamentally, the war is doomed because neither the methods of war nor the war metaphor itself is appropriate to a complex social problem that calls for compassion, self-searching insight, and factually researched scientific understanding.
Gabor Mate, In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts (2008)
The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Over the course of the past few weeks I’ve been prodded on several fronts to address our nation’s pathetic 30 year War on Drugs. This is a vital issue with economic, ethical, racial and international ramifications and something desperately needs to be done about it.
At the outset, let me confess that I’ve never actually experimented with marijuana, let alone “harder” drugs like cocaine and heroin. For one, I’ve always been a bit fearful that I might like it a bit too much and it would completely smoke out any motivation I might have to do anything productive for society. Besides, my poison is beer. I binged on alcoholic beverages during my latter college days and most certainly enjoy a beer (or 3) with friends today and, not to mention, all of the folks I’ve spent significant time with haven’t been into pot so it’s never been a relevant personal issue for me. But our own circumstances shouldn’t keep us from doing something about worn out and wrong-headed policies that negatively affect millions of people in the U.S. and south of our border.
First and foremost, as documented by Michelle Alexander’s marvelous work, African-American males are getting pummeled by racial profiling arrests, trials and sentencing, locked away in prisons for years on even minor marijuana possession charges. When paroled, with a felony on their records, they struggle to find legitimate work, let alone societal dignity. Statistics consistently show that blacks and whites possess and deal drugs and rates that reflect their percentage of the population, respectively. According to Alexander:
Millions of poor people of color have been rounded up for relatively minor nonviolent drug offenses. In fact, in 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession. Only one out of five were for sales. Most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity.
Many offenders are tracked for prison at early ages, labeled as criminals in their teen years, and then shuttled from their decrepit, underfunded inner city schools to brand-new, high-tech prisons.
Infused in white suburban minds (like mine, growing up in Orange County, CA) is the picture of the black kid with his pants hangin’ below his ass, on the ghetto street corner either smokin’ or dealin’ the day away. Meanwhile, the wealthy honors white boy is out hotboxing his BMW in the parking lot of the pool in his gated community. When caught, the white boy’s parents hire a lawyer to get plea bargained out of a felony while the black kid gets public defendered into prison.
Second, the United States government is currently spending billions to fight the production of marijuana, cocaine and heroin in Latin America. While drug cartels who control the trafficking by violently intimidate populations, multinational corporations are reaping government contracts on inefficient and outmoded technologies and training. Meanwhile, world leaders like former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia are pleading with the U.S. to stop the unsuccessful strategy of prohibition while the Obama Administration claims that the War on Drugs is somehow working. But the increase of drug, cash and weapons confiscations in Mexico has simply pushed the violence south into Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Third, American domestic drug policy is riddled with laughable double standards and inefficiencies. High school seniors readily admit that they have easy access to marijuana while their 21-year-old+ siblings can legally purchase alcohol and binge the night away, forming habits that have major personal & social implications, including drunk driving fatalities, increased cancer rates, alcoholism (etc) leading to higher health care premiums for everyone. And how is it that many forms of gambling, porn, cigarettes, credit default swaps and hydrocodone are all perfectly legal and (mostly) socially acceptable while bong rips are officially shunned and ostracized as the fuel for stoners, hippies and rastafarians? Of course, there are plenty (more than a million currently) of perfectly decent cancer patients, sufferers of chronic pain & anxiety and terminally ill who can (and do) benefit from the pain-killing, appetite-stimulating qualities of cannabis.
Lastly, we simply do not have any more room in our prisons for drug users and addicts who should be getting real help from 12-step groups, therapists and professional drug rehab centers instead of being shamed and punished in a de-humanizing cell. Consider the recent LA Times report on sex offenders who have been released early from CA prisons, mostly due to overcrowding.
More than 3,400 arrest warrants for GPS tamperers have been issued since October 2011, when the state began referring parole violators to county jails instead of returning them to its packed prisons. Warrants increased 28% in 2012 compared to the 12 months before the change in custody began. Nearly all of the warrants were for sex offenders, who are the vast majority of convicts with monitors, and many were for repeat violations.
The custody shift is part of Gov. Jerry Brown and the legislature's "realignment" program, to comply with court orders to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. But many counties have been under their own court orders to ease crowding in their jails.
Some have freed parole violators within days, or even hours, of arrest rather than keep them in custody. Some have refused to accept them at all.
Many of these predators are cutting off their GPS ankle bracelets and prowling around our neighborhoods for our children while government contractors paid to keep tabs on them are overwhelmed and virtually unresponsive. Meanwhile, Jamaal wastes away in the pen because he had the audacity to possess more than an ounce of Acapulco Gold. California's barbaric prison system is notoriously overcrowded. It is currently at 145% capacity. According to a November 2011 study by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, as of June 30, 2011, 1,325 inmates in California prisons were serving sentences for marijuana offenses, including 1,224 imprisoned in 2010, both decreases from the previous year. Marijuana offenders—costing an average of $45,800 per year to imprison and serving an average of 13 months behind bars—cost the state $60 million in 2011.
In addition to all of these arguments, a legalized, regulated and taxed ganja market in California would produce a safer product and a windfall for our state budget. Legalizing pot brownies would mean less money for Mexican drug lords and American CEOs and more money for the rest of us in the form of health clinics, high schools and highways. And I like the smell of that
Ending the prohibition of ganja is not giving up on the Drug War nor is it giving in to the druggies. The experiment has quite simply not worked and it has had a terrible affect on poor urban minority communities while corporations have profited handsomely from mostly well-meaning taxpayers. This is not an issue only for potheads. Anyone who cares about racial profiling & poor and vulnerable youths, the epidemic of drug addiction, wretched prison overcrowding and the massive waste of tax dollars ought to think seriously about it and advocate against prohibition and criminalization of marijuana.